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History on two wheels; Experience Route 66 on a bike

Famous in song and legend, U.S. Route 66 has long been a tourist draw for New Mexico. Now, a new map provides a bicycle-friendly way to follow the Mother Road at the kind of leisurely pace no longer possible in motor vehicles.

The Adventure Cycling Association, a Missoula, Mont.-based group that organizes cycling tours and produces maps and guidebooks, worked with local cycling groups who helped scout the terrain. The map of the New Mexico route section is available for $11.75 for Cycling Association members and $15.75 for nonmembers, and comes in waterproof, tearproof material. It gives route information, local attractions and details about distances, campsite and bike shop locations and phone numbers.

Established in 1926, Route 66 was a key highway linking Chicago with Los Angeles. It crosses Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The roughly 500-mile section from the Texas border to just west of Gallup on the Arizona side offers an opportunity to experience dramatic stretches of landscape, Indian pueblos, the major cities of Albuquerque and Santa Fe and small communities like Las Vegas and Tucumcari.

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Along the way there are chances to see historic buildings, retro neon signs and classic motels dating from the heydays on Route 66 when Detroit monsters ruled the roads.

Stars and signs

In Gallup, visitors can check out the El Rancho Hotel, which bills itself as “Home of the Movie Stars.” The hotel at 1000 E. Highway 66 was base camp for Western movies made in the 1930s and ’40s.

El Rancho’s website lists dozens of stars, including Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Burt Lancaster and Jimmy Stewart, who stayed at the hotel.

Between Gallup and Grants, the bicycle route detours from Interstate 40, following NM 602 and NM 53 across parts of the Zuni and Ramah Navajo reservations.

Attractions along the way include El Morro National Monument, where visitors can see inscriptions carved into the cliffs, including one from 1605 by Don Juan de Oñate, the first governor of New Mexico under Spain. There is an adjacent campground, nearby RV park and cabins and a cafe called the Ancient Way.

The route toward Grants passes by Bandera Volcano and nearby ice cave and El Malpais National Monument, a vast area covered with the remains of ancient lava flows. From there, the route passes through the Acoma and Laguna pueblo lands.

Worthwhile detour

Jennifer Milyko, assistant director of routes and mapping for Adventure Cycling, who explored parts of the route, recommends taking a 14-mile detour to visit the Sky City Cultural Center and Kaak’u Museum at Acoma Pueblo.

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The Acoma settlement atop a 367-foot mesa has the reputation of being the oldest inhabited community in North America.

The route reaches Albuquerque at about 200 miles. New Mexico’s largest city offers hotels, restaurants, numerous museums, galleries and several bike shops where riders can stock up on spare tubes or have needed repair work done.

Visitors can stroll around historic Old Town with its shops, adobe buildings and San Felipe de Neri church that dates to the 1790s. Another Route 66 landmark is the KiMo Theater at 421 Central NW, a Pueblo Deco style theater that opened in 1927.

Milyko’s exploratory visit, her first to New Mexico, included a stop in Madrid, the former mining village turned eclectic arts community on NM 14, also known as the Turquoise Trail.

“That was definitely a highlight,” Milyko says.

Retro motels

New Mexico’s capital city, Santa Fe, is known for its historic plaza, the Palace of the Governors, restaurants and dozens of art galleries.

Milyko suggests bicycle tourists with limited time could ride from Albuquerque to Santa Fe via Madrid, or vice versa, and take the Rail Runner train service back to the start point.

Continuing on the bicycle map route will take riders close to the town of Las Vegas, N.M., home of the Plaza Hotel, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and frequently seen in episodes of the Netflix series “Longmire.”

The route then heads south on U.S. 84 to Santa Rosa, known as “the scuba diving capital of the Southwest” thanks to the proximity of the Blue Hole, an 81-foot-deep pool fed by an artesian spring. Travelers looking for a vintage accommodation experience can try the La Loma Motel.

Another throwback hotel experience lies waiting about 60 miles farther east, in Tucumcari. The Blue Swallow Court, dating from 1939, is a 12-unit L-shaped motel famous for its neon sign bearing the message welcome to summer guests, “100% refrigerated air.”

From Tucumcari, it’s only about 40 miles to the Texas border.

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